David Lurie was once a professor of classics and modern languages at Cape Town Technical University, but, in the changing climate toward pragmatics and rationality in postapartheid South Africa, he has been relegated to teaching “communications skills,” which serves to strengthen his feelings of obsolescence in a rapidly changing culture. Lurie is further alienated from social relations by two divorces and his recent estrangement from his child, Lucy, who lives on the Eastern Cape. Lurie’s social aloofness has led him to satisfy his sexual urges with a prostitute named Soraya, until he destroys the arrangement by attempting to contact her outside their normal meetings. Lurie soon attempts to fill the resulting void with a twenty-year-old student in his Romantic poetry class named Melanie Isaacs.
Lurie successfully seduces Melanie after a couple of missteps, but she is reticent during the few sexual encounters they have; Lurie is conscious that at least one of these encounters is only barely consensual and is tantamount to rape. Melanie’s attendance in Lurie’s class becomes sporadic, and it is clear that Lurie is losing control of the situation; Melanie’s boyfriend harasses him, and his car is vandalized. Lurie grows increasingly certain that his students know about his affair, and soon his fears are confirmed by a visit from Melanie’s father.
Lurie evades Mr. Isaacs, who has come to discuss the affair Lurie is having with his daughter; he is not, however, able to evade the sexual harassment case filed against him by the university. Lurie has no patience for the proceedings; he is given ample opportunity to express remorse, enter counseling, and save his job, but he steadfastly refuses. It seems to his colleagues as if he purposefully wishes to destroy himself. He succeeds; Lurie resigns and moves from Cape Town to his daughter’s smallholding in the town of Salem on the Eastern Cape.
Lucy lives alone on her small farm, raising and selling crops and running a small kennel. Lurie has difficulty adjusting to the life of the farm but soon occupies himself volunteering at a local animal shelter, as well as helping Lucy on the farm.
The alien but peaceful routine of the farm lasts until Lurie and Lucy are attacked by three black men they invite inside to use the phone. The men quickly take Lucy into the house and lock the door, and Lurie is knocked unconscious while the men take Lucy to another room and rape her. Lurie awakes to find himself being doused with a chemical and set afire; he loses his hair and suffers severe burns to his scalp. The men have killed all but one of the dogs in the kennel and stolen everything of value, leaving the house a shambles. Lucy reports the attack and the burglary but refuses to report the...
(The entire section is 1128 words.)